Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a love letter to a classic franchise
I know you're here because you want to know just how breathtaking the monster-on-monster action is in Mike Dougherty's latest movie, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, but I insist on giving you my bonafides as a Godzilla fan first. My partner holds a monthly movie night and I've spent the better part of the past two months watching every Godzilla movie I could get my hands on in order to help her find the perfect Godzilla movie to show an audience. What started as mere research quickly became an obsession and I ended up watching sixteen Godzilla movies in that time. And while that sounds like a lot of movies, that's not even half of the Godzilla movies ever made. So while I'll admit to being a relative newcomer to the world of Godzilla, I am in fact a newly-minted fan that is still in the throes of infatuation with this series. I believe that gives me a unique perspective on the latest American adaptation, as these movies exist in a vacuum for me rather than on a continuum. I've not experienced the ups and downs of Godzilla fandom. Both the best and the worst Godzilla movies are all part of the package for me. All of that to say: I hope any Godzilla fans that may be reading this will trust me and agree with me when I say Godzilla: King of the Monsters is the best American-made Godzilla movie to date.
For any Godzilla newcomers, you'll be happy to know that like nearly every single Godzilla movie made since the 1954 original, this "sequel" requires almost no knowledge of its predecessors beyond the basic premise: Godzilla is a giant monster that attacked a city once. While there are characters that carry over from Gareth Edwards' 2014 movie, knowledge of their prior actions and even characterizations are not necessary to enjoying this movie. There are some references here and there that might delight and reward those who have been keeping up with WB and Legendary's so-called "MonsterVerse", but the continuity doesn’t impact the plot in any sense that isn't re-established here.
And by the way, if you are in fact a long-time Godzilla fan, this should all be good news as well. In my opinion, this is one of the best things about the Godzilla "franchise"– it is not a franchise or shared universe in our current understanding of those words. Nearly every movie in the Japanese-produced films is a sequel only to the original 1954 movie. Every entry has its own tone and scope, mixing and matching a variety of details about the mythos and tropes of various kaiju and their respective franchises, and Dougherty's new film is made in this same spirit. If you're a Godzilla fan, this is a very rewarding movie that will offer you a lot to love and cheer for.
And that brings me to my review proper. I absolutely loved Godzilla: King of the Monsters. As a fan of the Japanese movies, and specifically the Millennium era, this very much felt like a love letter to the Toho movies. Like those films, this has a "this is what we're doing now" plot. What I mean is, they take 10 minutes to re-establish the stakes of the Godzilla universe and then immediately introduce us to a new set of characters, circumstances, and technology that will be used to tell a somewhat nonsensical science-fiction story. This is not a criticism. These movies tend to function on an explanation-by-explanation basis which allows them to be very accessible and fun. Sort of a "buy into what we're selling, or go home," approach. As such, we're introduced to Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga), a scientist who has developed a technology that allows us to communicate with Titans, the recently discovered "superspecies" that Godzilla belongs to. See what I mean? This is already hot nonsense of the highest order, but also exactly the kind of plot I expect a Godzilla movie to have.
The plot revolves around Dr. Russell and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) who have grown estranged from Emma's former husband, Mark (Kyle Chandler) in the wake of a family tragedy at the hands (Paws? Claws? Talons? What's going on with Godzilla's hands?) of Godzilla during his San Francisco fight with the MUTOs in 2014. Mark had helped Emma develop the Titan-communication device for Monarch, a crypto-zoological agency studying these giant creatures, before realizing she was becoming dangerously obsessed with it and feared the consequences of her grief put into action. When Emma and Madison are kidnapped by terrorists and her technology is stolen for the purpose of waking more Titans, Monarch and the U.S. military make an uneasy alliance and enlist Mark to help them down. Due to Mark's knowledge of his ex-wife's research, he's able to help them track down Godzilla as well and make an uneasy alliance of their own to aid in controlling this new Titan threat.
If that sounds weird, cheesy, and a bit ham-fisted, it absolutely is and is sincerely played as such. This is to the movie's benefit, as Dougherty appears to be the kind of Godzilla fan that I happen to be. In this movie, the monsters are as much characters as the humans, and have their own drama playing out among them as they war with one another for dominion of our planet. The human and monster plots are intrinsically tied together, one affecting the other. This is different from Edwards' 2014 movie where Godzilla is a giant, unknowable force and we're watching its effect on a grounded, human story. When you start ascribing some personality to the monsters and treating them like characters in their own right, things tend to get cheesy, and to compensate the best Godzilla movies just spread that cheese all around. And what I love about these movies so much is that these two differing interpretations of the same mythology can easily co-exist, one never diminishing the other.
In this case, that's because Dougherty really does get it all right. He understands that a movie like Godzilla: Final Wars (a particularly insane entry in the franchise) is only as good as its metaphors. You can go big and broad with a Godzilla movie (pun intended), but that only works if the core of your idea is really solid. In 1954, Godzilla represented both the atomic bomb itself and the United States, the nation that dropped the bomb. Over the years he would become the stand-in for many human-created problems, like the consequences of technology run amok, or natural disasters as the consequence of pollution. Here, Dougherty treats Godzilla like an inevitability. Humans have knowingly mistreated the planet and we are on the verge of environmental collapse, past the point of no return. Something big is coming and we can no longer fight it. It's time to decide whether we're going to succumb to it, or whether we can survive beyond that and truly live with it. It's some pretty heavy shit disguised as popcorn entertainment meant to serve as a form of catharsis for people in crisis, exactly as a Godzilla movie should be.
This is truly why I loved this movie so much. Dougherty is clearly a fan, bringing back the best musical themes from the franchise, using various plot devices from the franchise's history like oxygen destroyers and psychic twins, putting our characters on submarines, and even referencing my favorite Godzilla movie, Godzilla vs. Destroyah, in the finale. He brings a lot of his own storytelling tendencies to this as well, like snarky characters in heightened situations and some awesome monster-movie scares (some of the best horror in the whole franchise, I'm pleased to report). But it's his genuine love and affection for all of these movies that made it work so well for me, as he brings a lot of the classic Godzilla lore into this American franchise. I do fear that means this won't be for everyone, as I don't expect general audiences to be as steeped in Godzilla mythos or even general affection for the character as I am. This is a love letter to a franchise that's as silly as it is profound, and it seems to me that general Western audiences don't always go for that. Unless of course they put Godzilla in some tights and gave him a cape.
If I haven't sold you on this yet, I could understand why. I've spent a lot of time describing a nonsense family plot and loosely referencing some deep Godzilla lore. So let's get to the goods. The monster action in this is enormous, frequent, totally insane, and mostly well-realized. There are a handful of chaotic moments that didn't work for me, but otherwise this is massive and gorgeous. The creature designs are absolutely fantastic in every sense, expanding on what we know about every single Toho kaiju that they use here, and even introducing some new ones that are very promising (don't expect much from them on this outing and you'll be pleasantly teased with some excellent designs). Most interesting to me were the characterizations of these monsters. Even in the Godzilla movies that are focused more on monsters than humans, the monsters are often still indifferent gods, seemingly unaware of our existence beyond the missiles hurled at them. That's not really the case here. The monsters all immediately have more personality than they have in most Godzilla movies, evidenced by the way they interact with one another. But it's the way they interact with humans that felt the most unique to me. There are times where they seem to relish the violence they are enacting on humans, and even somber moments where they consider our existence and what it means to and for them. I was fascinated by this idea, especially as a counter to their depiction in Edwards' movie, which is again partly why I love this. The sheer difference of palette that a Godzilla movie can use and serve.
Most of all though, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is fun. It's big and obnoxious, pretty dumb but knowingly and delightfully so, and it has a dimly hopeful, distinctly 2019 message about our bleak outlook as a species. Quite frankly, that's exactly what I expect a good Godzilla movie to be, and I am delighted to no end that someone finally nailed that formula in an American adaptation. This is the most like a Toho Godzilla movie of any Western version so far, and perhaps the best Western kaiju movie to date, though I imagine plenty of people will argue with me on that. It also sets the stage for Adam Wingard's upcoming Godzilla vs. Kong (also written by Dougherty) quite nicely, and as an enormous Wingard fan and fresh-faced Godzilla fan, I couldn't be more excited.
Let them fight, as they say.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters opens in Philly theaters tonight.